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Family farm agriculture battles to survive apathy, policies and myths

by A.V. Krebs
Editor, The Agribusiness Examiner

(Monday, July 28, 2003 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- Amidst the recent sound and fury over such issues as genetic engineering, mad cow disease, the quality, safety and quantity of the food we manufacture, etc., etc. the fate of this nation's historical family farm system of agriculture is being all but ignored --- by both progressives and reactionaries --- considered by many of these same folks as simply a relic of a bygone era.

Typical of such cynicism are the remarks made recently by Ken Cook, President of the Environmental Working Group who throughout recent years has repeatedly demonstrated his lack of understanding of agricultural economics. Saying that he was "skeptical that nostalgia will be discarded" it was Cook and his organization that compiled lists of growers who received subsidies amounting to tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of dollars.

"Gee, it's served them so well," he said in referring to nostalgia "usually, that's what they trot out when they're looking for more subsidy money."

By focusing so much media attention on the "subsidy question" during the debate on the 2002 Farm Bill, Cook's naïveté allowed in large measure corporate agribusiness to fashion legislation of the corporate interests, by the corporate interests and for the corporate interests.

As Keith Mudd, a farmer near Monroe City, Missouri, has pointed out " The Environmental Working Group argues that most of the subsidies go to the largest of farmers, who in turn use it to buy out their smaller neighbors. The truth is that all farmers, regardless of size, must use the subsidy just to raise the value received for their commodity above the cost of production. In most instances, the cost of production is covered and something is left over for living expenses. In practically no instance is anything left over that would be considered a return on investment (land and equity).

"Most problems on the farms of rural American," Mudd stresses, " can be traced to one fundamental cause. The underlying problem with farm income is concentration. As our input suppliers and the purchasers of our products consolidate, they acquire market power. This market power is leveraged against the farmer when he sells his crop.  . . . Look somewhere else for a scapegoat; it is not the American farmer draining the United States Treasury. The real transfer of wealth is accumulating in Cargill and ADM's bank accounts."

Likewise, as Dean Baker and Mark Weisbrot, Co-Directors of the prestigious Center for Economic and Policy Research, in Washington D.C. recently pointed out " While many of the agricultural subsidies in rich countries are poorly targeted, and in some cases hurt farmers in developing nations, it is important not to exaggerate these impacts. The risk of doing so is that it encourages policy makers and concerned NGOs to focus their energies on an issue that is largely peripheral to economic development, and ignore much more important matters."

Their comments came in response to a long article by the Editorial Board of the New York Times on Sunday, July 20, 2003, "The Rigged Trade Game" available at
The Weisbrot and Baker essay was taken from their paper "The Relative Impact of Trade Liberalization on Developing Countries," available at

Both at home and abroad corporate agribusiness's minions have long argued that agriculture to be successful must be "industrialized" which in turn, they have argued, relies on concentrating resources into as few hands as possible.

Agrarian populism at the close of the 19th century clearly recognized that condition and thus believed that it was imperative to bring the corporate state under democratic control. "Agrarian reformers," historian Lawrence Goodwin stresses, "attempted to overcome a concentrating system of finance capitalism that was rooted in Eastern commercial banks and which radiated outward through trunk-line railroad networks to link in a number of common purposes much of America's consolidating corporate community. Their aim was structural reform of the American economic system."

That effort, which Ralph Nader often points out, is "still the country's most fundamental political and economic reform" and laid the ground work for the Progressives, Woodrow Wilson's New Freedom and later Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal and more recently the Great Society. The creative economic and social policies that these programs spawned dominated the political and economic scene throughout the entire 20th century and thwarted for the most part the complete de-structuring of family farm agriculture in the U.S.

It was not until 1996 and the infamous "Freedom to Farm" legislation was fashioned by a Republican Congress and signed by a Democrat president that corporate agribusiness finally realized their dream of robbing family farmers of their nearly last vestiges of that economic power first conceived and asserted by the agrarian populists a century earlier.

Thus, by deifying "cost benefit analysis" at the expense of the "common good," corporate agribusiness has all but managed to completely annul the positive dimensions of the family farm system and eliminate its economic and environmental advantages, particularly as they relate to building genuine communities.

As social anthropologists Patricia L. Allen and Carolyn E. Sachs point out, any system built upon a foundation of structural inequities "is ultimately unsustainable in the sense that it will result in increasing conflict and struggle along the lines of class, gender, and ethnicity." Corporate agribusiness has become just such a system.

Thus, we have arrived at a point where our family farm system of agriculture is facing its dark night of the soul, standing now on the threshold of eradication. Throughout the 1980's we saw an ever mounting number of farm bankruptcies, foreclosures, and forced evictions reap a grim "human harvest" of suicides, alcoholism, divorce, family violence, personal stress, and loss of community.

Continuing through the 1990's to this very day we have witnessed the very economic and social fabric of rural America being ripped asunder as the control of our food supply is being  seized by the merchants of greed whose purpose is not to feed people, provide jobs, husband the land, but simply to monetize our natural resources and thereby increase their cash flow and reduce their transactional costs in an effort to placate their excess-profit-obsessed institutional investors.

Thus, in the grand scheme of history the 20th century may well be remembered as the point in the evolution of humanity when those corporations that trade, process, manufacture, pack, ship and sell the world's food successfully removed the culture from agriculture and in the name of "efficiency" and in the pursuit of a globalized industrialization of the world's food supply reshaped agri-culture into an agri-business.

By attempting to deify their own myopic view of efficiency, however, corporate agribusiness has brought family farming, the democratic control of the people's food supply, and a wholesome and healthy natural environment to the brink of global disaster which unless immediately recognized, confronted and thwarted will inevitably lead to worldwide economic, political, social and environmental chaos unlike any seen in human history.

For in measuring efficiency in strictly quantitative and economic terms, such as is currently being practiced by corporate agribusiness and its merchants of greed, the qualitative aspects of an agri-culture and a family farm food production structure are rapidly being discarded on the scrap heap of history as mere impediments to improving the "bottom line" of the unaccountable corporations that process and manufacture our food.

And as corporate agribusiness seeks to meta-morphize agriculture from a culture based upon the traditional family farm system of agriculture into a business where capital is substituted for genuine economic, social and environmental efficiency, and where expensive technology is substituted for labor we see a  standardization of our food supply through an industrial manufacturing process based on the creation of synthetic foods, such as is now taking place through the use of genetic engineering.

Considering those characteristics by which corporate agribusiness has become identified with and comparing them with the historical characteristics of the family farm/peasant system of agriculture we begin to see more clearly how corporate agribusiness is the antithesis of family farm agriculture and how incompatible the two systems are in a democratically structured society.

Whereas family farming/peasant agriculture has traditionally sought to nurture and care for the land, corporate agribusiness, exclusive by nature, seeks to "mine" the land, solely interested in monetizing its natural wealth and thus measure efficiency by its profits, by pride in its "bottom line." Family farmers, meanwhile, see efficiency in terms of respecting, caring and contributing to the overall health and well-being of the land, the environment, the communities and the nations in which they live.

While corporate agribusiness stresses institutionalized organization, hierarchical decision making, volume, speed, standardization of the food supply and extracting as much production from the land as quickly and impersonally as possible, family farmers and peasants strive through order, labor, pride in the quality of their work, and a certain strength of character and sense of community to take from the land only what it is willing to give so as not to damage its dependability or diminish its sustainability.

But the so-called "conventional wisdom" in agriculture historically has been that through the continual substituting of capital for efficiency and technology for labor "inefficient" farm operators are eliminated by "market forces" while those who survive manage to thrive.

Such "wisdom" also perpetuates the myth that the nation's agricultural system is still dominated by independent family-operated farms and with the ever-increasing elimination of "inefficient producers" --- "excess human resources" --- we will witness a never-ending expansion of production to feed the world.

Nowhere has this "conventional wisdom" been more apparent, hoodwinked more farmers and become the driving force of a nation's agricultural and food policy than in the United States.